Short post on a short-short story

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Dear Damsels (for some reason I keep trying to write Dead Damsels, hmmm), they are a collective of kickass ladies who publish all sorts of short stories (up to 800 words, can be fiction or not) under a monthly theme. If you are a female writer starting out with short story submissions, it’s a great place to go and get inspired, and write about a given concept in your own unique way.

I am very happy to report that on this amazingly sunny Sunday, my short story Same Old has been chosen to kick off May’s theme of Tradition on the site. Please check it out, and also check out some cool stories under last month’s theme of language, sign up to the newsletter, etc. As always, I would love to get some feedback, on the story, my bio, my pen name, whatever you want to comment on. Now I’m off to enjoy the sunshine again with Mur Lafferty’s Ghost Train to New Orleans as company; hope it’s sunny wherever you are! You can expect a bigger blog post (on Lord of the Rings, but not of the same length) some less sunny day in the not too distant future.

Happy writing!

Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!

 

*And by you I of course mean I…

Diversity in writing and publishing

There is almost nothing more diverse than people’s opinions about diversity. In general, almost everyone agrees that a certain amount of diversity is a necessary thing; if everything and everyone was the same, the world would be a very dull, stagnant place. Yet everyone has their own unspoken limit about how much diversity they can handle. Some can’t even fathom how any movie with a black and/or female lead could ever work (hello Star Wars aka biggest blockbuster ever), while others might draw the line at equality for human-cat hybrids, to posit some extremes.

diluted-diversity

Diversity is all well and good, as long as everyone looks like John Malkovich, amirite?

There have been many essays, many research papers, many discussions, about the necessity of diversity, in books, movies, boardrooms, anywhere. Most of these discuss diversity in terms of race and gender. I want to talk about a different kind of diversity, the kind that deals with biases in terms of people’s opportunities in life. Recently, RandomPenguinHouse (I so wish that was their merger name) announced that it would no longer require its applicants to have a degree. While this may seem like an insignificant, benign gesture, especially in Europe, where people are generally able to receive a lot of financial support to complete a degree, there’s no denying that fortune, i.e. degrees, still favours the fortunate. In fact, the current UK government is doing everything in its power to make university education just as expensive as the US, tilting the scales firmly towards the higher earners (which are still predominantly white males, so boring).

Let's help each other

Research shows that teams with a diverse mix of people are more productive

I’ve been researching ways to get a job in publishing. You can work in a bookstore, do an (often unpaid) internship, get a specific kind of degree, or…? And if you’re in the UK, you also have to be able to afford to live close to London, at least for most job opportunities. In the US, New York would be your very expensive destination. So what it comes down to is that even without a degree requirement, you still need to be able to fund lowly or unpaid work in a horribly expensive city. When you look at it like this, there’s still a long way to go.

I am interning at a company at the moment (paid, luckily), working with an editor that started off as a speculative intern (i.e. an internship not attached to a degree, like mine), who then decided to go get a degree, and a Masters in Journalism, to give herself some theoretical background. Plenty of other people at the company started as interns and worked their way up. I am also working with/for an amazing senior editor who started off in marketing. They hired me with a PhD and almost no editing experience (at the time). My point, aside from raving about my current place of work, is that diversity goes beyond whether someone has had higher education or not, whether they are a certain race, a certain gender (my current company only has 1 male employee, by the way, and it’s the most supportive, tough, hard-working environment I have ever encountered). Diversity, and this is why PRH’s decision is bigger than I’ve now made it seem, comes from first acknowledging that it is wise to hire people from different backgrounds. Technical people, artsy people, sciency people, they all bring different, fresh perspectives, which are what most companies desperately need to stay relevant.

From a writing point of view, some writers have MFAs, some don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as they can tell a compelling story. Compelling stories, they come from life, from different experiences. And so I come back to diversity. We’ve had so many stories about the plucky, muscled white guy who finds out he’s a hero and gets the girl as a reward. Just making this same hero black, or a woman, breathes so much new life into such an old trope, I frankly don’t understand why more writers don’t take this relatively easy opportunity to spice up their stories. Even the same plucky white guy, only he’s in a wheelchair – think of the story possibilities! I recently beta-read a story with a character who I thought was destined to be Mr Love-Interest until it was casually mentioned he was gay. Let me tell you, it was such a relief! Not that people have to be gay in order to not be forced love interests, of course, but still, + 100 diversity and interestingness points! It’s THAT easy.

 

P.S. Writing is clearly not that easy, or I’d be writing my book right now instead of this post, but you get the idea. The new, shiny, diverse idea.

Travel inspiration

Write what you know

To write a lot, read a lot

Observe people and how they speak

There is a lot of ‘age-old’ writing advice, little nuggets that in reality are entirely dependent upon the writer’s personality, the kind of stories they want to tell, and probably also the weather. One of these pieces of advice writers are often given is to travel. While I think that’s a great (though costly) suggestion, and I’ve certainly enriched my stories by traveling to places that have then been featured in them, I would like to mention some possible addenda to this advice.

travel890

Stories create (imaginary) travel, travel creates stories

When people think of travel, they are prone to think of a vacation, a brief trip to a new place. Often this includes highlights: famous monuments, buildings etc., popular shopping locations maybe, and of course the very best (touristy-oriented) local foods. While these kinds of trips may give you some interesting places to describe, and some much-needed relaxation to recharge the creative batteries, I don’t believe they are the kind of travelling that enriches a writer’s imagination.

The advice to travel is closely related to the advice to observe people. The kind of travel that gives writers new insights, that really can make a huge difference (and has, if you look at some famous writers’ biographies), is the kind that allows you to observe local people in their everyday lives. Not just the way they speak, which might be entirely foreign, but the little things that you never realise could be done differently until you view them from an outside perspective, as an anthropologist of sorts. Just try to explain your Christmas traditions to someone from a different country; even Americans and Brits, cultures thought to be so close together, will need to do some ‘translating’. People from different states/provinces might even give different answers. From an outside perspective, you can see and write down things that you would otherwise have thought needed no comment. This works even if your stories take place on a different planet.

The other benefit of traveling is to get to know yourself better. By staying to the safe, popular options, you are less likely to gain new insights. Learning about local differences, talking to new people, maybe overcoming some social anxiety (or that could just be me), can teach you a lot about yourself, and help you grow as a person. There’s a reason why so many European students/18-year-olds take a ‘gap year’ after school to travel around.

Not everyone (hardly anyone, in fact) can afford to move to a different continent and live there for a year, soaking in the atmosphere, the local ways of doing things, the realities of what it means to be a local in an entirely foreign culture. Sure, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert on a small budget, but she still had a budget and didn’t have to worry much about what she was leaving behind. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for more settled people. All it takes is to go sit in a pub or cafe frequented by locals, instead of visiting the Louvre. Sit all day, chat to people, really soak up the foreign-ness of where you are. You may not need to even leave the country to do this, just going a few towns past your ‘known world’ can be enough to expose yourself to different ways of speaking, doing, and seeing the world.

For the best results, you’d need to spend a substantial amount of time in a place, to ‘go native’ as anthropologists say. What also may work is to go some place outside your comfort/home zone frequently, to spend your weekends discovering new local watering holes in places all around you. But you won’t know what kind of inspiration you’re looking for, what kind of insights you might find, until you try.

So this holiday season, when/if you have some time off, why not try an experiment? Take your notebook, go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a place that a lot of locals hang out in, and just observe. You could even take your laptop and profit from your instant imagination-boost. As the age-old advice says, it can only make your writing better.

evening-kerry-pub-sceneIn a way, everything you do can make you a better writer, as long as you are observant enough to notice what, why and how you are doing it.

 

Am I talking too much?

How is everyone? Still alive? Survived NaNoWriMo, and life in general, for the last month? Congratulations, even if you didn’t manage 50k words in November, as long as you wrote some words, you can always add more.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

My 6th win. And more importantly, a plot bunny!

I ‘won’ NaNo again, though not by a wide margin this year (only 53k compared to my usual 65k+), and for the first time without any hope of being able to revive the story as it stands. Aside from the many plot holes (also something I don’t usually excel at) I kept having this sinking feeling that there was just way too much dialogue.

It’s hard to find a good balance between action and talking. While there are many non-verbal cues, talking is still the best way to convey who a character is, and what is going on, especially when you’ve got a big cast and a convoluted story-line. When I first did NaNo, I had not nearly enough talking, just action-beats all the way through. Then I did ScriptFrenzy to try and get better at dialogue, and ever since I’ve had a lot of talking in my novels, especially with this story that started out as a script. So where is the line between helpful dialogue and story-stalling conversations?

As with any sort of writing ‘advice’ or contemplation, the answer is that ‘it depends’. There are some great writers out there who have amazing novels that are almost no action, with a large amount of dialogue. I mean, if it worked for Shakespeare… Then there are great novels with almost no dialogue, except inner dialogue maybe. And not all of these novels are necessarily action-packed to compensate. Every writer has their own style, their own balance, crafted out of many millions of words and thousands of hours of practice.

That doesn’t mean however that readers aren’t attracted to a certain kind of balance for a certain kind of story. Specific genres (again with the exception of the great, exceptional books in those genres) tend to come with specific balancing acts. High literature is considered more wordy, more dialogue-y, than fast-paced fantasy or thriller novels. Romance obviously requires some dialogue, at the very least as foreplay to the main ‘action’. Sci-fi has both dialogue and action in a fine balance of the scales. We’re all readers here, we know what we like to see when we pick up a certain type of book.

That’s not to say that dialogue is opposed to action. Dialogue can create action and momentum just as easily as it can stall things entirely. Easy reading however does not make for easy writing, and it’s a lot easier to stall your story with conversation than it is to help move it along. There’s a reason why so many writing guides mention exposition as the Big Bad that must be avoided at all times; it’s a common newbie mistake.

So how do you make your dialogue support and propel the story, the action? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m trying to find out. So if you read this, and you have your own experiences wrestling with the dialogue in your novel, then do please share. If you’ve read a novel that makes excellent use of dialogue, then please share that. Maybe we can figure it out together.

NaNoRebelMo

November is nearly upon us, and so another National Novel Writing Month begins. Last year, I took part in my very own International Thesis Finishing Months, so I was too busy to write any fiction in November. This year, unless I come up with an exciting new idea for a story within the next 10 hours, I will be doing a National Novel Rebel Month.

It’s coming!

Instead of writing a new book, I will be going back to one of my old ideas. This idea started out as a failed attempt at doing my own NaNoWriMo while I was unemployed, then a script I wrote for Script Frenzy, and then again an incomplete novel. After all this time, across all these versions, I still haven’t found a decent way to finish the story. So I’m going to start at the beginning, making a few changes right away that will hopefully make the book more exciting and add at least a bit more diversity (it had talking llamas before it had a non-white person, and I am sorry about that). I won’t be starting exactly with a blank slate, hence the rebel part of my participation, but like most NaNoers I’ll have no idea where the story will take me, which will hopefully be somewhere unexpected. With new forward momentum, and my previous experiences of successfully pantsing my way through novels, I hope I will finally encounter the ending I’ve been looking for. Even if I don’t succeed, I will have had more than a month away from my finished draft of a different novel, which I can then attack (i.e. edit) with a vengeance.

First, I must start. Good luck to me, and to you if you’re also taking part. I would love to hear from other rebels out there. If you’re not taking part, keep writing anyway!

Reading’s a steal: Lessons learned those who came before me [part 2]

While I have read Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book very recently, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at it with any sort of analytical eye. There are too many emotions caught up in it for me, too many goodbyes. So instead, I’m taking a stab at Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in a trilogy. I’m currently reading the second book, which has given me some more perspective on the first one.

The kindle cover of the version I’ve read

To shortly summarise the book, it’s about a boy who is the son of a crown prince and an unknown woman, a bastard as everyone so often reminds him. When he is dropped off at one of the royal palaces, his very existence causes the crown prince to put himself into exile. He is grudgingly accepted as Fitz, i.e. bastard, and raised by the stable master. As Fitz grows up, he comes to pledge his royalty to king Shrewd and the new crown prince, his uncle Verity. They train him as a royal assassin, a faithful executioner for the crown, and try to teach him the Skill, a form of telepathy. Naturally he is more inclined to the Wit, a highly forbidden form of telepathy with animals that sometimes gets him into trouble. Throughout the book, there are increasing hints of political friction between members of the royal family, which eventually leads Fitz to be caught in the middle of an assassination plot that nearly kills him as well as Verity.

Of course, there is a lot more to the story; it is a big book. I hope I haven’t given too much away as it is. Robin Hobb is not afraid to take her time, and slowly build up the world of the Six Duchies and beyond. As a result, the world seems very big and alive. She also does a lot to set up the sequel(s), by introducing a variety of different, interesting characters that clearly have more story to tell, and leaving the ending open (just like most political situations are never-ending). There’s a second trilogy that centres more on one of the minor but very vivid characters with his own secret past. Given the richness of the world, I’m sure there could be an infinite amount of books set there. If you don’t mind books that build slowly, or getting frustrated by how much the bad guys seem to keep winning, then this is a great book (series) for anyone who loves the worlds of Middle Earth, Ice and Fire, Arthur, Mazalan and Tortall.

So, what have I learned?

  • If you write well enough and make readers invest in your character, not much has to go wrong to cause anguish. This in turn keeps people reading.
  • There is a fine line between suspense and frustration.
  • There is such a thing as being descriptive in the right way (I have just passed a sentence in the second book that’s close to purple prose but then also just so perfect in a universal, philosophical sense).
  • I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a novel in this style; I’m too impatient for real action to happen. Also, I was right to never go into politics; I would literally start stabbing people out of frustration.
  • The book is basically a masterclass in how to build a rich, vibrant world, and how not to dump all of it into the reader’s brain against their will.

That’s about all I can come up with. Has anyone else read the book and stolen some tips from it? Have I interested anyone in reading the book? I got it when Robin Hobb was offering the ebook for free, so keep an eye out on (necessary evil) Amazon.